Tango is not only a fascinating dance but also a fascinating philosophy, culture and lifestyle. The search of tango is the search of connection, love, unity, beauty, harmony and humanity, i.e., an idealism that is not consistent with the dehumanizing reality of the modern world. The world divides us as individuals, but tango unites us as a community and people. In tango we are not individualists, feminists, nationalists, liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, etc., but interconnected and interdependent members of the human family. Tango calls us to tear down the walls, to build bridges, and to regain humanity through connection, cooperation, reconciliation and compromise. It is a dance that teaches the world to love.

August 29, 2009

Close Embrace and Open Embrace (I)

I like everything about Argentine tango: its music, passion, beauty, its artistic, sportive, social and recreational functions, and its culture (milonguero legends, milonga codes, cabeceo, and even machismo, etc.). All of these, however, would not mean so much if tango were not danced by a man and a woman. As Susana Miller said, “If you like tango, then you like women.” Let’s face it, at bottom it is women who attract men to tango, and vice versa. Although to some degree that is true with all partner dances, tango is different. It is much more intimate, physical and sensual.

One BBC commentator remarked, “Tango contains a secret about the yearning between men and women.” That is right on. The yearning, however, is not necessarily a sexual one. I believe tango fulfills a human need for affinity with the opposite sex in a nonsexual way. Our society is so sex oriented that this innocent yearning between men and women is often being deprived. Any intimacy between the opposite genders is deemed sexual, therefore, is repressed either voluntarily or involuntarily. Men and women cannot be intimate unless they want to have sex. In other words, our culture does not approve innocent intimacy between the opposite genders.

But Argentine tango represents a different view, or culture, that sanctions nonsexual intimacy. Tango is a product of that culture. (See Tango: Historical and Cultural Impacts.) In this context tango is not just a dance. It is a way by which that innocent human desire can be met with stylized sophistication and elegance under a set of rules designed to maintain the dignity and decency of the activity. That is why milonga codes are such an important part of tango. The influence of tango, I believe, is by far more cultural than artistic. Tango is now becoming a worldwide phenomenon for a reason. It serves a fundamental human need and fulfills that innocent yearning between men and women.

But that aspect of tango is still new to the Americans, as attested by the way we embrace tango. We dance tango as but another ballroom dance. We are not intimately engaged to each other in the dance. Many of us still shy away from close embrace and prefer open embrace instead, which, although rarely seen in Buenos Aires, is the dominant style in American tango. Cabeceo and milonga codes are not taught and practiced at most milongas in the US. The general culture in our tango community is still more individualistic, independent, competitive and even hostile than intimate, friendly, cooperative and accommodating. Those who have visited Buenos Aires know what I compare with. (See Close Embrace and Open Embrace (II).)


  1. You are so correct, Paul! You get it!
    Thanks for the excellent post!

  2. Very good insights Paul. I think you are right that tango fills some human need.

  3. Good points, and well said.


  4. Having had a well rounded view of AT in the US, I resonate with the comment, "Argentine tango represents a different view, or a culture, that recognizes and sanctions nonsexual intimacy. In this context tango is not just a dance. It is a way by which that innocent human desire can be met with stylized sophistication and elegance under a set of rules designed to maintain the dignity and decency of the participants." Its the very phenomenon that has revolutionized the Finnish communities with an outlet for sensual contact that their social mores previously rebuffed.

  5. I've been very frustrated in reading your blog about your attitude towards men and women roles. But this post really hits the nail on the head for me. While I suscribe to a number of attitudes that you argue against (basically that women and men are just as capable of leading and following and in either role should be as co-creative as possible - within the framework of tango i.e. the lead leads and the follow follows), I completely agree with the non-sexual-but-nevertheless-intimate attitude that you highlight.

    I would submit that, just as I have no problem bringing this intimacy to a partnership with a woman I'm not actually sexually attracted to, then I should have no problem bringing this intimacy to a partnership with a man who I'm not sexually attracted to.

    This then leaves the problem of whether I can bring the correct spirit of surrender to the dance as a male follow (the "feminity" as you call it). I suspect I can, but I don't know for definite yet.

    It also leaves the problem of social mores and the fact that what I suggest is contrary to how BAs tango *is*.

  6. Tatiana Software, the gender roles and the ability to lead/follow are two different things. Many men can follow, but did you ever see a man who can really play the woman’s role well in tango like a woman can? Since you are not certain about whether you can be feminine enough in your following, I assume that you understand the feminine role is a lot more than just doing steps. Frankly, I don’t think you can dance like a woman. You are born a man. You don’t have a woman’s body, figure, softness, lightness, flexibility and attractiveness. You don’t have the female psychology evolved due to women’s reproductive nature, their need for beauty (to attract male), affection, safety, and protection. In addition, you can’t satisfy other men’s need for intimacy with women, how can you make them want to dance with you instead of your female rivals? Forget about the social mores, it seems trivial in comparison.

  7. Logically speaking, you are following funny rethorics in the reply above. First, you note how "Tatiana" is supposed to confuse following and playing a female role, then you precisely do it yourself by assuming that a male follower cannot be satisfying for not beeing able to rightly play a female role.
    1) Why should the (only) right way to follow to play the (social norm) or female?
    2) How can you assert a man cannot be as satisfying a partner since, precisely, all is done is dance circles as well as in the rest of our society to prevent them to even have a chance to develop their qualities (of follow or whatnot).
    If women in our society where as repressed as man are to develop qualities which contribute to the ability to follow in couple dances, among myriads of other things, then maybe they would be as bad as you, "Tatiana" and myself in that. (Actually, I'm not that bad according to my male & female partners, in fact better than many women, but this comes from other practices like body expression. And woman who highly developped a "man-ish" attitude in life, among which many dance teachers by the way, are as anxious as men of losing control; very bad follows.)

  8. Obviously, you and I do not share the same logic. Tango is created to be danced by a man and a woman, and that is how tango has been danced in Argentina for one hundred and fifty years. The man is the leader who plays the masculine role. The woman is the follower who plays the feminine role. I don’t have a problem if you choose to dance differently. In fact, I will defend anyone’s artistic freedom. For this reason I don’t think it’s right to say that the traditional tango is politically incorrect, that the gender roles should not be taught, or should be redefined/reversed, that tango needs to be reformed to make men and women undifferentiated, and that gender neutralization is the way to go. Because by so doing tango will be altered at the costs of its ordained function and those who love it as the way it is, in which, by the way, following is not dancing in circles, but playing the feminine role (See my post The Gender Roles in Tango (II)). Men in general are not good at playing the feminine role not because they are not given the chance to practice, but because they are born masculine, and women are just the opposite. If men and women were naturally good at the reversed roles, tango would have been danced differently. I do not dispute with you that men and women may change their behavior through practice. But why should they? Most people tend to do what is natural rather what is unnatural to them. Right-handed people use the right hand not because their left hand is not given the chance, but because using the right hand is natural to them. If you believe all is but a matter of practice, then don’t you agree that practicing the masculine role is equally if not more logical to men, and practicing the feminine role is equally if not more logical to women? I believe any man can become a better leader through practice than he could ever be a follower, and any woman can become a better follower through practice than she could ever be a leader, because I have never seen evidence that convinces me otherwise, and I have seen a lot during the years.

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  10. I agree that in AT the woman should submit to the man's lead but my teachers do teach the idea of the invitation. I think the idea of submission can be confusing to beginning leads. Many of them still do not understand how to lead with their body instead of the push of their hands. The idea of an invitation suggests delicacy in the lead...and I don't mean femininity in the lead, just smoothness. I like the idea of submission but I combine it with the idea of the man's invitation to me. It's a much nicer dance when the man allows the woman some time to put her little embellishments in here and there, because some men have constant movement and there is little time for any fancy little footwork. The woman may lead herself during these little embellishments, but the man is certainly not turned into the follower.